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What should you look for in a tennis shoe?
Gear nerds rejoice: A podiatric surgeon—and ex-tennis professional—shares his knowledge on tennis shoes, their evolution, and what you should look for when buying.
11 Aug, 2020

One thing’s for certain: tennis players love their gear. Racquets, bags, grips, dampeners, track suits, shorts, shirts, polos, headbands, wristbands, and—importantly—tennis shoes. We want to make sure we’ve got the best so that we can compete our best. But tennis footwear, like racquet technology, is a deep topic. There’s a lot to learn if one’s interested.

In an effort to become versed in the intricacies of tennis shoes and to convey this knowledge to Tennis inbox subscribers, I spoke to Dr. Zach Thomas who also runs the YouTube channel The Tennis Pro Doc. Dr. Thomas is a board-certified podiatric foot and ankle surgeon who applies his medical knowledge to review how tennis shoes are made and how they affect the feet. Before becoming a surgeon, he played and coached tennis for Slippery Rock University as well as taught tennis in Pittsburgh, PA. Though he practices full-time at the Academy of Podiatry in Pennsylvania, Dr. Thomas still holds his USPTR certification as a tennis professional.

Dr. Thomas in action on his YouTube channel, reviewing the Adidas Stycon BOA

Dr. Thomas sat down with Tennis inbox to share his knowledge about the evolution of shoes, movement, what the feet go through on a tennis court, and his recommendations and ideas about tennis footwear. The following is our conversation, edited for clarity:

Malhar Mali: How has tennis shoe technology changed over the years? It seems that the shoes that were worn in the early 80s and 90s are nothing compared to the high-tech offerings available today. Shoes from that time seemed very simple—minimalistic even.

Dr. Zach Thomas: Most tennis played in the 60s, 70s, 80s was on har-tru, clay, grass, or carpet. So you didn’t need as much midsole support in a shoe. You could get away with just having a shoe with outsole tread and not much else.

The US Open went from clay, har-tru, grass—they played it on everything but hardcourt. Even the Australian Open was played on a bouncier hardcourt up until a few years ago. All these surfaces were a lot easier on your joints.

A pair of John McEnroe’s match-used Nike tennis shoes circa late 70s/early 80s

Both tours also used to play their entire indoor seasons on carpet, so it was a lot more forgiving. Therefore shoes just didn’t need that thick midsole that they need now. Also most players during those times were serve & volleyers. It was very linear movement. They didn’t need the side-to-side lateral support that today’s shoes offer.

Most players just wanted a shoe that was light. That’s all they cared about. As long as it was light. Instead of trying to cut for balls, players would often dive because they were on softer surfaces, so it wasn’t going to hurt as much as diving on a really gritty hardcourt.

Bjorn Bjorg and John McEnroe at Wimbledon

Today, if you watch Murray and Djokovic move compared to Stan Smith, Cliff Drysdale, Fred Stolle—even John McEnroe, at most these older players were taking two or three steps, split-stepping and then going for their forehand or backhand volleys.

They weren’t really sliding on hardcourt or running from one doubles alley to the next to try and hit a two-handed backhand. People don’t realize how physical that is on your calves and your feet.

So today’s players need something with lot more of a midsole to get you the bounce to move in those ways and to stop you once you get there. That’s why shoes have changed. The game has gotten way more aggressive.

Look at Andy Roddick’s shoes from 2004, when he came out with those Reebok Figjams. They were the first really bulky shoes for a really big mover. And even those had barely any support for side-to-side movement. If you look at a shoe like the Court FF 2 from Asics, they’re tanks—because Djokovkic worked with Asics to design them. He’s sliding into two-handed backhands so he needs the support.

A pair of Reebok Figjams compared to a pair of Asics Court FF 2s

MM: Is tennis shoe technology similar to that of other sports? I would imagine that Basketball is similar in terms of movement patterns. And then there is squash and badminton, too.

Dr. ZT: Squash and badminton are much more minimalist with their design—they’re focusing on lightness because movement is limited to a contained space. You can play tennis in basketball shoes—there’s really nothing saying you can’t. They’re just more clunky and you’re doing a lot of jogging in basketball. You’re bouncing up and down and then you’re split-stepping and making a play for the hoop. Basketball shoes also have to be a lot beefier because players are stepping on your feet, etc. With tennis shoes it’s a lot more about movement. Tennis shoes are much more about finesse while basketball shoes are like armored tanks.

MM: Economically speaking, the manufacturers often release a lower-tier option to their “premium” shoe. In your opinion, do you think these top-tier shoes are worth it? Or does it depend on the type of player you are? Meaning if you play once or twice a week, a lower-tier shoe is fine. If you’re competing seriously, perhaps the top-tier is better?

Dr. ZT: If you have any foot, knee, or hip problems, the bargain shoes are not going to be great if you play more than once or twice a week. If you’re playing 3.0 doubles on Saturday nights, then it doesn’t matter much. It might though if you’ve had a knee replacement, or if you have heel pain, etc.

If you’re a high-level player and playing competitively, it does make a big difference. I just tested two Asics shoes last week, and I was trying to show that you didn’t have to spend a lot of money trying to get a good pair of shoes. And that is true with some manufacturers. But most of the time if you’re a competitive player, it does matter. Because you’re not going to feel as confident with your movement.

If you’re taking lessons or trying to play the modern game you need a modern shoe. If you’re going to be expected to slide into your shots there had better be something underneath your feet that’s going to support your frame. There are exceptions. New Balance makes some cheap options that are just as good as anything in the market—but they’re the exception to the norm.

MM: Should players who play different game types look for different things in a shoe? For example, if I’m a serve & volley player, should I look for specific features as opposed to if I was a grinder who moved mostly laterally and spent my time a couple of feet behind the baseline?

Dr. ZT: The more serving & volleying that you do the more narrower your shoe should be. The more you’re using the back of the court the wider the flange should be. But we’re not on the pro tour.

A prototypical baseline shoe like the Asics Court FF 2 is still fine for serving & volleying. But if you use the Asics Gel Resolution 8, which gives you a little more spring in your step, you’re going to be into the court a little faster which will make getting to the net easier.

If you’re going to serve & volley more you want something with more spring. Whereas if you are going to be moving side-to-side, you should play in something wider such as the Sole Court Boost or the Court FF 2. A hybrid of those is the Nike Air Zoom Vapor X, which is right in the middle of those two shoes—which is why players like [Roger] Federer like to play with those shoes. They’re right in the middle.

Nowadays, if you’re serving & volleying a lot, the returns of serve are coming back way faster. You’re hitting more volleys in the mid-court today. Whereas if you looked at the pro tours back in the day, players would be hitting volleys closer to the net. If you watch Federer serve & volley today his first volley is right around that service line—which means that players are lunging a lot more. So a shoe with a lateral flange on it is more useful.

MM: In Nadal’s autobiography, he talks about working with Nike to heavily customize his shoes due to a recurring problem with his feet. To your knowledge, is this a common occurrence on the pro tour? Or are the pros using what we’re using? As opposed to racquets, where players often stick with a single frame for years (even decades), they change shoes every 4-5 months. I believe Richard Gasquet is one of the only pros I’ve seen who has consistently used the same model of shoe.

Dr. ZT: If you’re top 20 on either tour, your shoe is made for your foot. It’s a similar process to making orthotics. They make a plaster cast of the player’s foot. Players are using the same shoe that you’re using, except the “last” which is what they make the shape of the shoe from.

Roger Federer in his Vapor Xs

If you look at Federer’s Vapor X, it’s so wide. They actually had to put more panels on because his foot is so wide, and Nike shoes are typically more narrow. I’m trying to get a pair of Serena Williams’ practice shoes from 2017. They’re made for her foot! With Nadal’s Vapor Cage 4s, I think they’re basically the stock shoe. It’s not like racquets where Federer is still playing with that custom Pro Staff 85. What you see is what you get—that’s the Vapor X or the Cage 4. It’s just the “last” of their shoe is made to fit the shape of their foot, like a custom-made orthotic. A lot of the lower-tier players are just using what they’re given or they’re buying their own shoes.

MM: In recent years, on both men’s and women’s tours, we’ve seen the introduction of sliding on hardcourt. To me, that seems like a risky thing to do. Has shoe technology changed to facilitate this new way of moving? Is there less tread, different patterns? What do you think is going on?

Dr. ZT: If you look at the soles on a lot of today’s tennis shoes, you’ll see an “HC” on them. It stands for hardcourt. A lot of these shoes are made with an almost slicker outsole. If you buy a pair of Nike Vapor Cage 4s, the outsole is actually slick. If you wear them on a hardcourt it’s almost like you’re ice skating. That’s one way they do it.

The other feature they include is to have linear air channels. If you check out the bottom of these modern shoes, you’ll see a big channel going from heel to toe. That’s to allow air to get in there so that you can slide. A lot companies are making shoes with a shallow herringbone pattern. That allows enough grip on a claycourt to be considered a claycourt shoe, but the herringbone is shallow enough that it will still slide on hardcourt.

Sliding on hardcourt is a lot easier when the court is brand new. Older courts have more grit—where the sand is starting to come through. You stick on it. On new courts with new paint, it’s almost like you’re on rollerblades. So a lot of it is that the pros are always playing on nice new courts so they’re a tad bit more forgiving for sliding.

I would say in terms of shoe technology which facilitates sliding, it’s a shallower herringbone patter, those linear air channels, and not as tacky of an outsole.

And it is very risky! Unless you’re practicing that, just take the extra four steps and hit the ball.

MM: Thanks for speaking to Tennis inbox, Dr. Thomas. Looking forward to checking out more of your videos! It’s nice to have a foot expert sharing his knowledge on something that many tennis players will find useful. Stay in touch and best of luck with your channel!

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